It’s the pack mentality—any sign of weakness and they pounce.
It was only a couple days before Samantha’s arrival and in between, Clarissa, Daniel, Katie, and I, spent the daytime feeding, scooping poop, and chinking dog houses. Chink is the sludge used to seal the cracks in the walls of a log cabin. John picked up expired chink from local developers, for free, for us to slather onto the dog houses. It wasn’t difficult work but you had to be persistent at it because the chink was old and degraded and therefore a bit dry and chunky which made the compound difficult to spread smoothly in the cracks between the wood planks. You started by peeling off any old chink that looked to be already peeling off and slathering the “new” on thick like cream cheese on top an everything bagel. I enjoyed chinking for the opportunity to interact with the dogs, learn their names, and give me peace of mind that I was helping to keep the icy wind at bay. Many dogs shied from my presence, but many also came and licked my face and wouldn’t leave me alone. Their behavior seemed normal enough to me but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. If these dogs spent their lives working with people and ferrying tourists around during winter, why were so many of them fearful of me? Most house dogs are not nearly so fearful of new people.
Samantha showed up next. Samantha wore blond hair cut straight above her shoulders and stood less than five feet tall. After seeing some of the dogs in the yard I couldn’t help but question the wisdom of hiring such a small person to handle the strongest dogs, pound for pound, that I’d ever seen. But despite her height it was clear this woman meant business. Samantha was all go and eager as anyone to get dirty and down to business and I was soon looking forward to working with her. Sam showed up with great energy about her. You know, she seemed fun. Clarissa, Sam, and I started hanging out in the evenings and since Sam’s cabin was about seven miles down the road, and Matthew, the office manager and her roommate, hadn’t arrived yet, we encouraged her to sleep on the fouton downstairs since the more the merrier. Samantha was intense—not in a scary way—she was always giggling, simply bursting with energy. She was a flirt too.
John repeated his short greeting for Samantha, confirming himself to be a creature of great habit, like most of us, though he added a joking bit about Matthew advising him to hire his “friend” to be a 4’10” musher—Matthew knew Samantha from sea kayak guiding in Alaska. John liked to say he never hired couples, but that he was a matchmaker, meaning his employees often dated each other before long. A few years back he married a couple of mushers in the sagebrush just past the dog yard.
Oh and most importantly, snow kept falling from the sky and teasing us ever softly with her bright whiteness yet oh so thin ground cover. We all clamored for a good blizzard but it would be another three weeks before we had enough snowpack to take the sleds out. However, the snow and dropping night temperatures meant that it was time to add straw to the dog houses. This bedding was the only insulation in the houses. Just enough straw to make a comfy bed but not too much because each guide would have to fluff their pups’ straw every other day or daily when the weather was bad and then change the straw out when it became damp or too musty. You didn’t want to waste straw, everything costs money. The straw chore doesn’t sound like much now, but later in the season I cursed the gods when storms blew snow into the houses and wet the straw. Having to drag a tarp full of hay through the snow after a 10 or more hour work day to change out 25 dog houses was the last thing any of us wanted to do. The process could take thirty to forty-five minutes. We were cold and tired didn’t want to be so any longer. In between it all a little voice in my head wondered at the morals of giving the dogs no bedding during the long off-season; sleeping on wood planks for seven months out of the year can’t be described as comfortable.
A group dinner down the road, at the only restaurant for fifteen miles in any direction, was the first opportunity for me to observe John be John, away from his kennel. All the guides sat down in good cheer, everyone but John that is, since he was nowhere to be seen. We sipped on water and talked about food till Daniel assured us Frank would pick up our beer tab and we asked for a round of pints. Daniel and Katie assured us the food was good but the pizza was the real draw. I nodded along but wasn’t paying close attention to the conversation. My thoughts were back at the kennel. I was running through a mental list of my dogs. Picturing them smiling up at me and remembering their personalities. From time to time I tuned back but quickly lose interest. I find most idle chatter boring. I don’t mean to give the impression that I am aloof, but perhaps that is not far off? Finally, we saw him, or more accurately we felt his presence. In swung the door nearest the bar and in came John, making a beeline for the bar and wasting no time to order a pint. Heck, he might have stayed at the bar all night had Sheri not gone over to get him. He ambled over to our table and dragged a chair out to settle down to. His eyes were glazed over. We new guides exchanged concerned glances as we learned our new boss has a drinking problem and I winced inwardly as memories of my own addiction, during my mid-twenties, and of friends’ and relatives’ flashed behind my eyes. Drinking destroys us, no doubt. It eats away at the brain. Eats away at mindfulness. Mindfulness, being aware of your feelings, thoughts, and actions—not reacting to them willy nilly—needs a clean mind and body to thrive and I feel that mindfulness is the Universe’s gift to humanity. I’ve seen friends and relatives destroy their lives with alcohol, I’ve seen myself come close too, and it was sobering to know my new boss and landlord and maybe even new friend, was well saturated. His mannerisms were abrupt and his breath reeked of beer. My thoughts turned towards being compassionate. Those thoughts pushed against thoughts of pity and annoyance. An inner give and take of ocean tides. Meanwhile, John launched into a series of monologues with himself at the top of the ladder but entertaining nonetheless. Perhaps I thought he was funny at his expense? Clarissa rolled her eyes. I felt the energy of my companions wane from good humor to slight annoyance with our boss. Perhaps John is just misunderstood. New relationships are nice like that, you don’t know a person well enough to fill in the colors, all you’ve got is an outline, and why start off on a bad foot? Besides, John seemed to be mostly honest and straight with his employees. He seemed to work hard and expected you to work just as hard which is something I can relate too. In Congress I was surrounded by ego’s taller than the tower of Babylon, so John seemed a breeze. Anyway, I really didn’t know jack all about John Updike except he was here buying us beer and pizza and telling harrowing stories of Iditarod races and sled dog lore. Hands down I was excited to work with him to gain insight into a notoriously tight-lipped corner of culture. How many Iditarod racers do you know?
Katie left for a two week vacation the day after pizza dinner. She was taking one of the puppies with her back to the East coast to live with her mom. The little husky, Adagio, suffered from an unknown disorder that affected his eye-paw coordination. The kennel suspected that Adagio and his brother Niaf Puk were the result of an unapproved incest litter, caused by dogs getting free and finding a partner for the night, and though Niaf Puk seemed fine it was quite obvious Adagio was not. He often fell over while walking and would bump into the wire fence of his pen like he couldn’t gauge distance. Adagio’s incredible cuteness offset the reality that he was seriously handicapped. Strange how part of me wanted to pity him while also thinking “but he’s so cute!” It was a bummer to see Katie leave—there were only so many of us at the kennel to socialize with, and though her first job was as race handler she helped out with tour chores too—Katie was also beautiful—but then my second roommate Ann arrived to fill in the gap.
Ann guided whitewater raft down the Arkansas river that past summer so I was eager to share river stories with her but that first night all I wanted was to go to bed, till Sheri knocked on our door and quite directly told Clarissa, Samantha, and I to stay awake till Ann arrived. If I didn’t like Sheri so much I would have probably ignored her and gone straight to bed but Sheri was good-hearted and most importantly she was right that the neighborly thing to do was to stay up. But really I didn’t want to disappoint Sheri--especially not since we began a morning Hatha yoga practice. And I knew Sheri was type of friend you would be lucky to count on in years to come. Part of me figured that Ann was a big girl and could figure out the cabin herself but that was selfish—I was just tired. To pass the time read up on newspapers on my laptop. What do we read those things for anyway? Every day they say the same stuff: so and so met with so and so, they didn’t agree on anything; so and so killed so and so; group A met with group B to discuss group C and agreed to disagree. Bah humbug. Finally, a knock at the door signaled Ann’s arrival. My first impression was of a friendly, chill, and easy going woman who would help keep the group grounded. A short thought that I could easily become involved with her popped into my head but I pushed it aside and stood up, offered a short greeting, and climbed upstairs to bed. Crawling into my sleeping bag I reminded myself that hooking up with a roommate was a bad, bad, bad idea.
The best part about Ann showing up was that Daniel finally showed us our dogs. Though we already started moving a few dogs around, we did it blindly and unaware whose dogs were whose with the exception of a few names that Daniel gave out to keep us drooling. No doubt he enjoyed the suspense he created by making us wait. Imagine my surprise that those first dogs I met on day one would be on my team! I liked Daniel and thought he was doing a great job so far showing us the ropes. It was the first time he found himself in the boss/instructor/ head guide role and though it was clear he was learning on the fly that did nothing to damper the quality or dedication of his work. Daniel was clearly committed to the dogs and he took the job serious. How serious he truly took the position would come out once we started to run the dogs and when the Holiday Rush was in full tilt. Though I was new to running dogs, I had been in similar authority roles before and offered to help him anyway I could—plus I wasn’t going to let any opportunities to assume more work or responsibility slip by me—long ago I learned that I thrived off of leadership and responsibility which is partly why I became so enamored with running dogs.
Sheri taught us how to make our ganglines, necklines, and tuglines. All items we would use to hook the dogs up to pull the sled. The kennel had bulk nylon rope in three sizes: red for neck lines, black for ganglines, and blue for tuglines. We used these metal sewing needle things, I’ve since forgotten the proper name, but we used them to thread the nylon rope into loops. Necklines and tuglines were easy. As a whole the yard would go through quite a bit of red nylon since it was usually the first thing to be chewed on by troublesome pups. The gangline though had a bit of steel cable threaded through the middle and that one was a sticker. There were clear steps to follow. You could not fudge those steps. When it was gangline making time I usually screwed it up at least once because I’d let my mind wander away, forcing me to start over. One day I screwed up three times. I cursed and cursed and then drank more coffee. Coffee didn’t help anyway.
Before I go any further it is time to introduce my companions through the winter. Initially, I went back and forth over how to introduce the dogs and whether or not to do so. But my family assured me that the mini dog-bio’s are their favorite part. These dogs changed my life. A year later they still occupied the lion’s share of my dreams. Here are my sled dog friends:
Viking: The first dog whom I learned would on my team. Viking was always there for me when I needed him. He was one of the biggest and strongest dogs yet one of the gentlest. He didn’t like drama. He didn’t want to be up front. He was happiest when in the middle of the pack in team or wheel. Viking was around nine years old and he showed little patience for younger dogs that were still adjusting to being chained up. He preferred to run with older dogs. Every time he saw me he would begin leaping off his front feet with his nose up and his whole body straining against the leash; his every action telling me that he couldn’t be happier to see me and could I please walk faster? He always cleaned his food can. There was only one morning that he didn’t do that. He was sick. I believe he was overworked. It was towards the end of the rush and Viking was tired—all my dogs were tired—but I still had to run them. John needed to make that cash and the dogs were “bred” for this. I counted on Viking to help pull the second sled when the guests were obese—they were almost always obese. His presence was that of 2-3 average dogs. Every time we stopped on the trail Viking would sprawl out on the snow to cool his massive frame—Looking up at me expectantly—ready when you are boss. I brought him home once to sleep on the floor near the heater. Except he didn’t understand he wasn’t supposed to mark the legs of the furniture with hot piss. I tried a second time. Still didn’t get it. That’s alright though—he would have eventually. On those long miserable days during the spring melt when the trail was slush and the air 50F that pup would soldier on so long as I kept smiling, forced smile or genuine grin.
Johnny Cash Johnny was the hardest working dog on my team. He was ten years old and spent the first half of his life racing. Johnny still had the race mentality burned in his head. Stopped on the trail for a breather, the team would relax and catch their breath except for Johnny who would be straining against his harness. His legs shaking from the lactic acid buildup. I made him take breaks. He hated it. If left in the yard, he would stare at me with betrayal. For Johnny, nothing was worse than being on the chain. He won my heart early on in the season. He would spot me an acre away and begin barking. He would stare right into my eyes from 50 yards away through the maze of dog houses, and bark short and strong while tapping his front feet until I reached his house. When one of Clarissa’s girls got loose she went to Johnny’s house where he mounted her and a few weeks later there was a litter of puppies. Usually John would abort any litter he didn’t approve but Johnny was a special case. At ten years old he was as strong as he was at seven and pulled harder than any dog in the yard. Hindsight has given me a different perspective on Johnny’s “work” ethic. I now understand his preference for straining and pulling when he should be resting—his legs shaking under the effort—to be no different than brain washing. He was manipulated to never stop pulling. To override whatever instinctual mechanism told every other dog on my team to rest. He came down with an infection during the season that I suspect happened because his body was too tired to fight it. Johnny was bred for sprinting. His coat was no thicker than a Doberman Pinscher. It was difficult for me to look at him when it was subzero for all the shivering he did. He was also incredibly hard-headed. I couldn’t help but admire him.
Kenga She was one of the two dogs on my team that was on the last RDS Iditarod team. She had been all of 18 months old when she ran those 1100 miles across Alaska and was 12 years old at the beginning of last season and she had a hitch in her gait to prove it. Kenga’s rarely raised her head above her shoulders, as if years of pulling had rendered her unable to gaze skyward. I was told she, along with Johnny, would be one of my go-to second team leaders. She wouldn’t be a good first team leader because she would test me. Her previous musher was never able to win her over so she stayed on the second team. One look at the old lady told me all I needed to know: she wasn’t going to take my ignorance. Despite towering over her, Kenga managed to look down her nose at me. I was nothing to her but another temporary “authority” figure in a long line of temporary nothings. Her attitude spurred me along to win her allegiance. The battle for Kenga’s loyalty could take a whole book. By the end of it we came to understand each other. I don’t believe that dog would ever accept anyone as her boss—but teamwork isn’t about bosses and underlings—it’s about working together and eventually we did.
Knox “Watch out for Knox. He is super aggressive. The last musher rarely ran him and when he did Knox ran alone.” I heard those words but when I met Knox it was impossible to connect the warning with the dog. He was three years old, short toe-blond fur, a big square head, huge brown eyes, and the tallest legs of any dog in the yard. His eyes could break your heart. Knox was one of the newly purchased dogs and it was only his second year at RDS. You could feel the energy radiating out from him. My mother visited for a trip and before she left declared Knox her favorite dog. When stopped on the trail, Knox would hit the snow and roll around on his back in a puppy fit stuffing snow in his mouth and letting lose a howl to express his need to let loose. The warning was apt, though. Knox did not know how to deal with other dogs. He never had an opportunity to socialize—living your whole life on a chain prevents that—and I spent many nights agonizing over how to rehabilitate him. If I brought him near another dog he would innocently sniff their butts, as any other pup, but within seconds he would freeze. I could feel the tension building up inside him. His brain frantically trying to determine what the other dogs’ intentions were and what the next step should be? The energy in Knox would multiply till it was too much to contain and explode into snarls. When he cracked, the ferocity would shock you like a tailpipe backfiring. The other guides thought I was crazy for running him but I had to understand Knox. I needed to know what was wrong.
Hermit The smallest dog with the most energy. Little Hermit was barely two years old and came from the same deadbeat kennel that my pup Spike hailed from. Hermit had far too much energy for a chain and twice popped her it from the house. That means she ran out her chain till being thrown to the ground like she was hit by some blitzing linemen—over and over and over—until the metal S hook that secured the chain to her house bent open—the chain was attached to her collar which was around her neck. Think about that for a minute. She was hesitant to trust me and it showed through her eating habits. Most of the deep winter Hermit was underweight. I couldn’t run her as much as she needed because she didn’t eat. Not eating meant she wasn’t comfortable. So I spent more time with her. I worked on calming her down with a new pattern: Hermit wouldn’t be fed or led to the gangline until every muscle in her body relaxed. I rubbed my stinky-dog-saliva-generating paste on her gums to convince her she really was hungry. To start the season, she didn’t pull very well. There was too much going on for her to focus, but by the end of February she was coming around. Honestly, there was a good two weeks where I couldn’t stand Hermit. I was tired of her excess energy. I needed her to calm down and eat. It was -25F and my hands were on fire trying to calm her down so she would eat (she didn’t like my Gore-Tex mittens). One day I mentioned to Daniel that I hate that crazy dog and his surprise that I would ever use the word hate to describe one of my dogs that I clearly obsessed over woke me up to how impatient I had become with her. It wasn’t Hermit’s fault she was crazy but it was my job to help her.
Pooh Due to a miscommunication I started the season rarely running Pooh because I thought she was Kenga’s sister, which meant Pooh was also twelve years old and I didn’t want to over work her. A couple weeks into the season Daniel asked why I wasn’t running Pooh five days a week—a great leader and cheerleader—so I told him and he said no, no, no—Pooh was half Kenga’s age and not related at all. I felt like an idiot. It was a foolish mistake since any one with eyes could have seen that Pooh had abundant energy, and even if she was twelve we were instructed that the dog must run if it can run. No questions. I threw Pooh up on the first team to lead with Classic and was thrilled with her performance on the team. Pooh had ears that would flop around when she jumped and jump she did. The Jumping Pooh was how Daniel introduced her to me. Every time the sled stopped to rest Pooh would leap off her front feet—again and again—till we started moving, of course. Sometimes I tried running Kenga and Pooh together but would have to switch them out because Pooh’s jumping infuriated Kenga, since Pooh’s motion would jerk the elder Kenga’s neck around. Kenga may have hated Pooh’s jumping but the children on my sled loved it.
Classic If I loved any dog in my life then Classic was him. We started out just two animals who wanted to run down the trail. He didn’t have any reason to trust me but he never turned down a massage. He was excited for breakfast, but not necessarily excited for me. By January though Classic and I had reached a telepathic level of communication. He became my best leader and the best companion dog I’ve ever had. I knew what he was thinking before he did and I swear the reverse was just as true. When we were running, I mostly watched him. His muscular yet lithe frame, the way he cocked his head, how he trotted down the trail, as if he had not a care in the world, and how excited he was when we went night running under the full moon—his howl—are treasured memories. Classic’s name says all you need to know about his appearance. His face was white with a bit of gray and light brown around the neck. His legs and belly where white and the fur along his sides and back was black, bordered with a touch of light brown. His tail was short—half the length of most dogs—his father’s tail having been bred to a stump by mushers who prefer dogs without tails—no tail means other dogs can’t bite it. That piece of information speaks volumes about the state of sled dogs in North America—if mushers worked to breed tails out of their dogs because they couldn’t stop dogs from biting them—the dogs must have behavioral issues that result in excess aggression and since all behavior is environmental….wolves don’t run around with bloody stumps for tails. For his part Classic could be counted on to obey my orders. I would later rely on him to muscle Persia around when she would test me. It’s a bummer we hadn’t reached that level of teamwork when Kenga was testing me but all greatness comes with time. Patience is apparently a virtue. Seriously, I could talk about Classic for days. It would be his downward spiral at season’s end that galvanized my desire to share the story of my sled dog companions.
My friend’s one fault was that he couldn’t stand other teams passing us no matter the direction they came from (ahead or behind). I especially had to work hard at keeping him focused on me when teams were heading towards us—during the week leading up to the Rocky Sled Dog Race the trail was full of dog teams conditioning up and down the trail. Classic couldn’t stand those hound dog teams, and when one passed he would bound towards them barking for all he was worth, taking the team with him. I learned that the best way to head off this behavior was to speak to him continuously when the other dog team was 20 yards out. I took Classic into town once and I believe he loved the new sights, new smells, new “things.” When the rest of the dogs were exhausted, looking longingly at their chains, I relied on Classic to keep us moving down the trail. He was my main leader for most of the trips I took that season. He and Clover were the two dogs I regularly brought home to sleep near the heater. Classic did not hail from RDS. He along with Clover and Elana—my three most mentally-stable pups—a bit like saying “my most mentally-stable kidnapped children” came from an individual who had just enough dogs to pull a race sled. I have been asked by many people which of my dogs I would rescue if given the chance—stupid question—the absurdity of choosing one friend out of 25 to rescue.
Palenque Movie star good looks. The girl was beautiful. Daniel told me she bonds very quickly with her musher. What he should have said was that Palenque suffers from extreme separation anxiety, but dog mushers don’t speak in terms of mental behavior. For a dog musher, the dog’s mental state is secondary to whether or not the dog pulls. Daniel though was more an animal person than a dog musher and asked me to watch her left hind leg for excess hair loss—a clear sign of a dog unable to cope with their existence. What I mean is that Palenque was starved for human companionship. Every dog at the kennel was starved for strong continuous and reliable human companionship, which by the way is the entire reason that people keep dogs, supposedly. Palenque was the way she was because she was one of the last pups that Sheri raised for her race team. Sheri showered select puppies with extra love and devotion and when those pups were demoted to the tour yard Sheri had to stop or offend the musher. But Palenque didn’t adjust. She was used to a level of care above and beyond what a seasonal worker is willing to do. Palenque went from year round care to five months of bare minimum. She couldn’t handle it. So she scratched her leg till hair would fall out. She would aggressively chew her food can—the one item that her musher was in daily contact with—till it looked like a shotgun found it—after just two days. Palenque’s eyes said it all. She needed love so I gave it to her. Towards the end of the season I noticed she chewed her can less and her leg fur was getting thicker. Palenque was also very female aggressive towards “dominant” females. She did however take well to my relax training technique where I trained my dogs to calm down whenever I said the word “chilllllllllllll.” While running down the trail she would pee constantly. Not usually a problem since girls mostly pee without breaking stride but Palenque would squat and allow herself to be dragged along till she was done. That meant she had to mostly run in the back of the team to protect her from being run over by other dogs which could result in a dog fight. Her and Itza are sisters.
Itza Lovable, sweet, strong as an ox, ready to snap at any moment and rip into another female dogs’ throat… Itza. Itza was also a beautiful dog but she didn’t look like any sled dog you have ever seen. She was black and brown and white speckled and patchy with fur as short as a pit bull. Itza’s weight was hard to keep up because how short her fur was but then that’s the idea when you want to race dogs and the weather is far above freezing. I was constantly told that Itza’s weight was questionable but there was nothing I could do—she was eating the maximum amount of fat her body could withstand and I know this because several times I gave her diarrhea while learning her body’s limits. Itza pulled as hard as two pups. She was obsessed with affection. Sheri had taught her dogs to jump up and put their front paws on the roof of their house if they wanted loving, and Itza remembered. When I walked near her house she would preemptively put her paws on the roof and look over her shoulders at me, tongue hanging out and lips pulled up into the biggest doggie grin. She was incredibly affectionate. Daniel told me he almost put her in his yard just because she loved human contact. Itza always looked happy. Unless it was below zero. Then the dog that licked her can clean would stare at it like poison. Itza became frustrated and unstable around other females. In a snap of your fingers she would become the scariest most bloodthirsty dog you’ve ever seen. I became very good at sensing her trigger points. I was told to never ever ever run her near Princess, let alone next to Princess, unless I wanted two dead dogs to leave at the edge of the forest. That was a challenge I couldn’t pass up. Eventually I managed to run the two girls side by side without incident—while on the gangline at least. I’ll get to the Princess/Itza fight later in the book.
Elana The wise little old grandma who was loyal from day one. Elana would be the pup I counted on to get my team down the trail during the rush. Elana kept my first team moving no matter the conditions. There were no antics when she was leading. If her partner tried marking a snow bank, or wandered around, she would pull him back onto the trail. Always doing her job to keep the team facing forward. Elana had the skinniest legs and the tiniest of paws and though her torso seemed innocent there was real strength hidden beneath her fur. When the team hiked up she would jump against her harness and lean into it for all she was worth and then some. When stopped she would keep one eye looking over her shoulder at me. She had big round raccoon eyes capable of adopting the softest expression like your best friend’s baby after a full meal of breast milk. She was the only pup I could let walk on her own from her house to the team. She would gingerly pick her way through the snow deep as she was tall and sit at the front of the gangline waiting to be clipped in. Elana’s age, unfortunately, would catch up to her.
Hostage Daniel told me that if Hostage ever got loose we would never get her back, at least that was how she was introduced to Daniel when she was dropped three months before I arrived. The first time I approached Hostage to feed her, she backed away to the end of her chain and strained mightily against it in an attempt to put as much distance between us as possible. Her collar struggled to free itself from around her head as every muscle in her body locked up and twitched in her effort to escape my presence. Daniel said she had been doing that every day since her arrival. The first fifty times or so that I harnessed her saw the same reaction as that first day. It would be two months before Hostage came around to me. Her name “Hostage” was coldly accurate for her behavior and it was heart wrenching to see her react the same way day after day. Eventually, I won her over and she even licked my face in affection. It was the biggest reward and relief of the whole season. Hostage was terrified of her environment and never adjusted or fully relaxed to the aggressive air of the dog yard. She was hugely uncomfortable of running next to any dog but her brother, Nugz, nor was she comfortable with any dogs running behind her. As a result she mostly ran in Wheel unless we were on the way home, and when she was mostly relaxed from already running ten miles. One time she did get loose in the dog yard and I radioed Daniel in a panic. I was supposed to be harnessing my team as the guests had just arrived. She slipped out of my grip and right out of her collar. Daniel cursed loudly—not over the radio but I could hear him from 3o yards away over the howls of dogs—and replied that I was the only person she would even think about approaching so good luck. To my surprise—and a testament of how Hostage had begun to trust me—she came right over when I called her name—a far cry from when she was terrified of my presence. She never warmed up to any other humans.
Nugz A hard worker and a lovable dog once he saw he could trust me. At first, he reacted like Hostage, albeit without the muscles locking up. That was the first sign that Nugz would come around to my affection faster than his sister. Nugz could run anywhere in the team except for leader—he was much too submissive and unsure of why he ended up at RDS—too uncomfortable with the sled dog role he was forced to assume—too unsure of the chaos which characterized the dog yard—to ever want to lead the team. I came to rely on Nugz when my older dogs were tired. Nugz and Hostage were 5 years old and the pair became stalwart second team dogs due to their youth and endurance. The two did struggle keeping up till the second half of the season, but that was because instead of properly conditioning them for the workload we threw them into the grind the minute we had snow.
Dagger Reliable and mellow. Dagger and his brother Musket were called the zig-zag twins for their love of zig-zagging left to right across the trail when leading a team. They were the cornerstone of my second team until I realized their bodies were failing from the extra effort required of second team dogs. Daniel advised to run them back there because they were unlikely to start fights or chew necklines or misbehave. But RDS didn’t take into account that the two brothers were aging. How could Daniel have known anyway? They were never his dogs. Dagger was nine years old and during the middle of the season he began deteriorating. When I realized my mistake in listening to outside advice over thoughtful analysis, I stopped running the brothers on the second team. Mistake may be the wrong word. In the beginning I had no choice but to run the brothers back there because they were among the few dogs I could count on to behave. Of course no dog only ran on the second team, but some did more than others. John warned us about that and advised to rotate dogs to the first team, because otherwise their obedience would regress. It wasn’t till late February that I had control enough of my team to run dogs anywhere I wanted without worry—except for Knox.
Musket Just like his brother Dagger, Musket was gentle and even-tempered though he hated Tiger but come to think of it so did Dagger and most male dogs. Musket was also bigger and stronger than Dagger. Despite his experience and strength his age had caught up. There were too many days during the Rush where I had to drag Musket out of his house, to drag yet more tourists down the trail, and it took a toll. When I noticed—when the forty day rush was over—I took to benching Musket more than he wanted but he never caught his breath. Eventually he succumbed to a shoulder injury and was benched for the rest of the season.
Spongebob Every little girl loved Spongebob. If Viking was Scooby Doo than Spongebob was Pooh Bear. Golden color and little ears that flopped up and down as he trotted. I was told he wasn’t a leader but late in the season I realized how foolish it was to take that advice without testing it and one day I ran him up front. Spongebob was amazing up front. He changed into a different dog. In the middle of the team he was subdued unless I was rallying the pups up. When he was leading he came alive any made a sound halfway between a howl and a whine when he was excited. Prior I never heard him make such an ecstatic sound. He was one of my favorites and if I could break into RDS and steal a handful of dogs he would be on the list along with Classic, Clover, Spike, and screw it, it all 25 of them. Clover and Spongebob became my dream pair of leaders towards the end of the season.
Princess Princess was one of my most complicated dogs. She originally belonged to a famous Iditarod racer from a dog mushing dynasty—we’ll call him Dick. Dick has had multiple dogs die while racing. He is known for pushing his dogs so hard they drop dead on the trail. He bred Princess to run John’s race and later sold her to John because she wasn’t good enough for him. John told me that Dick had broken her. Princess was pushed too hard too fast and cracked. When she felt too much pressure she would sit down and refuse to move. John said once you break a dog she is broken forever. Of course, I was told none of this until she quit on me while leading my team out of the yard. I had wanted Princess to lead my team, so occasionally I began leading her on the way home—apparently Daniel had never seen her lead and he never knew her story either. Princess always had an intelligence about her and a sassiness that won my heart. I had to have her lead my team. After a few times leading with Classic on the way home I tried leading her and Classic out of the yard. It was the second half of the rush. I yanked my snub line free and told my second sled to do the same. Both teams took off. Then Princess stopped. My swing dogs ran into her and Classic. My second team swung around my sled and began passing. I reached out and grabbed a hold of the wheel dogs and yelled at my guests to stomp on the brakes. The dog teams were barking and snapping at each other. I looked up and saw Classic sit down. Then the swing dogs sat down. Meanwhile every other dog was going ape wild. I tried to get Princess and Classic to run, but no go. I ran up to them and led them down the trail to get a bit of movement but as soon as I let go to hop back on the sled the dogs sat down again. John radioed me. What’s the hold-up out there? I told him my leaders wouldn’t budge and I didn’t know why. He ran over, saw Princess, and told me to move her back in the team. He said he would explain later. After the trip he told me about Dick.
Cabernet 12 years old and veteran of the last RDS Iditarod team. He became blind the year before but could still run down the trail. He was like a big teddy bear and most of my guests would remark at his massive size and his gentle demeanor. Cabernet had difficulties coping with blindness—at times he was frustrated and almost defiant when having to resort to sniffing out his food--but he still had enthusiasm when it came to running. He was the biggest cheerleader on the team. His presence as the biggest and oldest dog brought a calming effect on any dog running next to him. I used Cabernet to help train Spike and Hermit and to calm down Hostage and Nugz. Every time the team stopped Cabernet would stand up on his back feet and slam his huge front paws onto the trail. He reminded me of an orca whale slowly raising his tail to smack onto the ocean’s surface. But for all that I hated having to run Cabernet for fear he would misstep and break a leg or pull his shoulder.
Tiger Blind at birth but the most loveable dog I’ve ever met. No other dog yearns for attention as much as Tiger and who could blame him? Every other dog had little patience for Tiger and most disliked running next him: Exceptions being most females, Classic, Clover, and Spike. Tiger would flop onto the ground or throw himself into other dogs—clearly enjoying life to the fullest extent possible for a blind sled dog who has never had an opportunity to be free of a chain or sled. If he heard you coming, he would erupt into a hail of barks and not stop till you visited him or five minutes later—whichever came first. He would melt into your legs or nearly knock you over as he leaned ever harder into your legs. The most scared I ever was that winter, perhaps the second most in my entire life—unsurprising for a sheltered middle class white male from DeLand, FL—was when Tiger slipped out of my grip during harnessing. He leapt and pulled and broke free of my legs with one big push. His reaction to being free spoke volumes. Tiger looked surprised and elated. I panicked that he would run into a male dog’s house, precipitating a fight, and started chasing after him. I called Tiger’s name but he wasn’t stopping for anyone—he was finally free—he ran right into Musket, knocking the older dog to his back. Musket growled but before he could get up Tiger spun around and took off running. Tiger was running out of the dog yard and straight to the guide house. I sprinted after him. Tiger was running fast through the sagebrush and headed straight for the hillside, oblivious to his surroundings and to the ten-foot vertical drop before thirty feet of steep hillside directly ahead. Every step I took sunk through the snow crust, slowing my progress, but if I had trouble so did blind Tiger and with twenty feet to spare I caught up to him. In my haste I forget to call his name before leaping and grabbing hold. He turned and snarled and nearly bit me before recognizing it was me. What can I say? I love that dog.
Aphrodite Little old lady Aphrodite was shy all season and never approached me unless I knelt down to patiently wait for her to grace me with her presence. Unless I held a harness in my hand. A harness would see her become her namesake, a temptress, stretching this way and that, looking over her shoulder at me. Aphrodite didn’t pull hard and could barely manage a slow trot. Running her meant I had to keep my teams slower than the other guides liked but I would do anything for Aphrodite. Something about her spoke to me and I knew she had been through a long and difficult life. I had a feeling Aphrodite resented all dog mushers, and the kennel, but at least on a trip she could escape for a brief while.
Crow I retired Crow early in the season when I realized he could no longer run a half day trip. Crow was 12 years old and half-mad. Being stuck in the yard for so long had driven him crazy and when he realized he wasn’t going to run any more trips he really lost it. Crow no longer cared whether or not he stepped into the sewage puddles that formed when snow melt mixes with feces and frozen urine. My observations of the retired dogs in the yard lead me to believe that is a clear sign of the deteriorating mind resulting from a decade or more on chains. I did run him for a few trips, scattered through the season, forcing my dogs to trot really slow. Crow had a lot of heart and desperately wanted to run. It was hard to pass by him every day while hooking up the other pups.
Nez Perce Nez was retired a couple seasons past for a serious leg injury and had not left his chain in two years when I arrived. He did not like me. Nez wouldn’t leave his house and would growl no matter if I had food or not. Then one day I dragged him out of his house and clipped him to a leash. We went for a walk down the trail. Nez changed that day. He became my friend. I wish I had taken him on more walks.
Glok Glok was a good pup, one of the few “Stable” dogs from the deadbeat kennel, but eventually I traded him for Persia. I still regret trading a loyal and good hearted dog to Clarissa. Glok deserved better. You’ll read more about Glok in the next few chapters.
Spike Of all my pups Spike hurt the most to leave behind at season’s end. Spike is not a sled dog. He is a little hound dog who is being forced to live in the mountains and pull dog sleds. He grew up more than any other dog in my yard, but that’s also because he was the youngest and hadn’t any opportunities to grow before I met him. Spike was a shy and nervous little pup who turned into a brave dog full of self-confidence. I did my best to train Spike for the pressures the kennel will throw at him. I wish Spike could be free.
Persia Beautiful. Persia is wicked smart but a pain in the ass. Katie once referred to her as the autistic sister. After three months of watching Clarissa throw Persia around, yelling petulantly at her, I traded Glok for Persia, betting that Glok would be tougher than Persia and better handle Clarissa’s attitude. I was wrong. Persia was tougher. We fought like dogs—an idiom I use to show how little the average person understands canines—more like we fought like people—the entire four weeks she was on my team was a game of willpower. Perhaps if Persia was with me from the beginning she would have trusted me, but with only four weeks she didn’t care a lick about me. I ran her anyway but always with Classic or Clover. My two best dogs would keep her inline no matter what Persia wanted to do, and she usually wanted to do the opposite of what I wanted. Course all that means she might have been the rare dog who is able to maintain her personality—her sense of will—despite being chained up and forced to pull sleds.
Clover Daniel gave me Clover when he noticed my team desperately needed another strong dog. Clover may have been eight years old but he could still pull for 20 miles like a dog half his age. He was one of the ugliest dogs in the kennel with an underbite and a snout that was constantly scabbed over and bleeding from what John said was an auto-immune disease. We connected immediately. The first chance I got I put Clover leading with Classic. The two dogs looked like best friends and they were: Classic and Clover came from the same kennel. Clover would turn out to be one of my best leaders, to the regretful surprise of Daniel, who never ran Clover in lead, and I would count on him many times over to lead the team when Classic needed a break, though I ran my two boys side by side as much as I could. He was one of the few dogs that regularly came home to sleep on the floor. Clover would go straight to the heater and curl up against it, and he wouldn’t move till I forced him to the next morning.
Audoon Audoon receives her own chapter later in the book.
Chapter Four continued…
The tour yard was divided into six sections, one for each guide, and each a slightly different shape. Mine was the furthest from the kennel and consisted of two long columns of dog houses, Clarissa was next door and was three columns of various lengths, Samantha’s was next to hers and was a bit funky looking spread out over several columns, Daniel’s was a big L that stretched from the back of mine over to Samantha’s, Bennet, who had yet to arrive, was between Samantha and Ann’s. Both Bennet and Ann were in the lower yard, so named because it was down a short hill from the upper yard and, to the detriment of the dogs, was most exposed to the powerful winds that rip through the canyon across the plateau where the kennel sat. Both of their yards were five or six columns wide but more box like compared with the rest of us.
Moving dogs around would prove to be among the most dangerous jobs. Not so much for us but for the dogs. Earlier Daniel explained that it took extreme caution moving dogs from house to house, or from house to the feed room, or from house to the sled’s gangline (gangline being the steel cable you clip dogs on to pull the sled). He provided a demonstration a couple days earlier where we each had a chance to move a dog, but merely to a neighboring house. Even so those first experiences stand out bright in my head.
There is only one sure way to securely move a strong sled dog—whom has not given you allegiance—and that is to first place a harness on her then lift her front upper body high in the air by gripping the back of the harness so that her paws cannot touch the ground and the she is standing tall on her hind legs. This removes most of her ability to pull by forcing her to hop on her legs in order to move. You keep her close to your side, usually your arm makes a right angle at the elbow, so you can use your body as leverage if need be and to keep your arm in a position of strength. Though Daniel warned us that other dogs would snap at the dog we held up, he especially warned us not to forget about the tail. Displaying naiveté, I was skeptical that all that was really necessary and didn’t see why the other dogs would care to snap and bite, but I never knew dogs that spent a life in chains. Daniel warned to never move a male past another male or a female past a female. You can move males past females but be wary of moving a female through a male’s house because he could nip at her and cause the female to retaliate. As I mentioned before it is common for mushers to breed dogs with nothing but a stump for a tail so they don’t have to worry as much over dogs ripping each others’ tails off. The first time Daniel moved a dog showed how little I understood dogs. As soon as the pup was unclipped from his chain the dogs nearest began barking and running out their chains in mini fits of hysteria which spread to the entire yard. In the space of two seconds all 180 were barking and howling and running in circles. The yard was a riot of noise and a chill swept through me. Why were they reacting like that? I realized the other guides were also surprised at the reaction of the yard. Daniel analyzed his surroundings, carefully chose a safe route to pass through, and strode off into the maelstrom of dogs furiously trying to attack from the flanks. Once or twice Daniel shouted the name of a dog to warn her away or body block a male from getting too close. Sometimes simply pointing at the pup would get her to back off but not always. Not every dog was snapping. Some dogs were content with barking their heads off and running in a circle. Some would snap at air—clearly wanting to convey the angst and frustration they were feeling but not ready to actually bite Daniel’s pup. I’d never seen anything like it but I damn sure wanted to experience it and was sure I could do as good a job.
Daniel chose me a pup that was an older veteran. I slipped a harness over him and gingerly lifted the old dog into the air. Once again the yard erupted into frenzy. Since I already knew the path I needed, I took my first steps in as best an imitation of Daniel I could muster. When the first dog leapt up and snapped I froze like a deer in headlights. It’s one thing to watch but another when you’re doing it the first time. What in the world was going on? What was wrong with these dogs? In all my life I had never seen such behavior before but there was no time to waste, the pup I was holding up was clearly frustrated I stopped moving and began barking defensively. I felt his energy boiling up my right arm and I waved my left arm in the air to offset the dog’s energy, like balancing on a felled tree. I kept moving and barely swung the pup clear as dog took a snap at his tail. The next two houses had males who backed up when I pointed a stern finger in their direction and suddenly we were safe by the empty house. I clipped him to the chain and realized my breath was short and shallow. A few drops of sweat beaded down on my forehead. I muttered a curse and shot the same look over to Daniel. He smiled and said good job getting the tail clear. The familiar feeling of success warmed me up and smoothed over the doubt. Next?
As crazy as that was it was nothing compared to the first dog I moved into my new yard. His name was Spike. Spike was located on the far end of Ann’s yard which meant I had to move him across the entire acre and a half through enemy territory. Spike had come from a bankrupt race kennel where he likely had never left his chain and only ever met one human till he was dropped off at RDS. He would not let anyone near him. Daniel said the guy lost interest in running dogs because of the expense and workload.
Spike arrived a couple months before me and looked clearly out of his element. Spike was a year and a half old. The first thing you notice about Spike is that he doesn’t look like any sled dog you have ever seen. He looks like a hound dog Labrador mutt with short thin black hair and floppy ears and since he was a puppy and never ran anywhere he lacked muscle definition. Daniel said it was a big deal for John Updike to buy hounds because John was known for sticking with Alaskan Huskies and for breeding tough ones at that. John got his start with endurance racing, meaning distances between 500-1000 miles where Alaskan Huskies are the norm. Dogs like Spike only recently became popular in short distance (20-50miles) because they average 3-5 miles faster an hour over huskies, can run in warmer weather, and are easier to manipulate. Depending on which musher you speak with it is smart and clever to run hounds or sacrilegious and cruel.
When approached, Spike looked at you with adorable puppy eyes that practically scream please pet me! But the closer you got the more he backed away—as if he wanted your attention but was wary of the unknown, fearful of human touch. Earlier in the month Daniel taught us what to do when dogs avoided you: Simply stand on their chain and step by step work your way towards the dog till you are within reach of their collar. Obviously this scares the dog--a tall stranger slowly stepping on your chain as you cower in fear with nowhere to run, however your job isn’t to coddle the dogs, but to run them.
Spike stood with his tail between his legs, his head on the ground, his ears back, and his eyes open in fear while I worked my feet along his chain. After what seemed an eternity, I gingerly unclipped his chain and picked up the distraught Spike by the collar to walk him through the yard. On cue the yard exploded. We made it six or so houses before Spike panicked and in desperation began to fling himselfin all direction in an attempt to free himself from my grip. His fear filled my nostrils like the stench from old gym socks. I nearly lost my grip. My heart told me to stop and drop. Meanwhile, dogs were going ape shit trying to bite him so I dropped to my knees in an attempt to soothe the scared pup. The sharp cracks of a 180ish dogs barking might as well have been gun shots piercing my ears. A quick glance around confirmed that none of the other mushers were paying attention. We already considered this to be normal behavior. Spike tried wriggling away from me so I held on tighter while figuring out a plan. I was afraid of scarring the pup and leaving him terrified of me for putting him through the ordeal of maneuvering him through another 20 or so rows of houses. I looked to my left and realized I was only three houses from the edge of the yard and 15 yards beyond was a dirt mound roughly seven feet high and 10 yards long that I could walk behind, skirting the edge of the yard till arriving at my runway. Knowing Spike was terrified I figured the only option was to pick him up and hoof it. I lifted him into my arms--immediately the surrounding dogs got even crazier—with Spike completely removed from his own power, leaving him more exposed, the pups became half again as aggressive and loud—and took off for the edge of yard and the safety of the dirt mound. Dozens of black and brown eyes, half-crazed from their own desperate attempts to either bite Spike or express their frustration that they’re not the ones free of the chain, glittered in our wake as we made our escape. Behind the mound Spike calmed down, clearly thankful to be clear of the yard, so I lowered his back legs to the earth where I could hold his upper body up and move him the traditional way. His eyes found mine and I felt his gratitude. He gave me the vibe he wanted to lick my face so I knelt down to accept the proffered kiss. Then it was time to keep moving. Spike hopped along my side and soon we were at the entrance to my runway. The sight of dogs brought a bit of panic, but with the bigger space between my houses he remained calm enough and was clipped to the chain of his new house without further trauma. Before walking away I scratched and rubbed Spike all over his skinny body. A voice in my head told me that Spike and I were now friends. The moment binded us.
Yet, the whole experience felt frustrating and confusing so I asked John and Daniel why the dogs reacted so aggressively to another pup being moved through the yard. As I suspected they might, they answered that a dog off his feet was vulnerable and therefore the pack mentality set in. Other dogs, they reasoned, succumbed to their natural instinct and tried to attack the exposed dog. Since they were the experienced ones I accepted their explanation but I knew the answer was incomplete. For one, where was the pack? What little I knew of wild dogs or wolves suggested that packs were highly socialized and inter-pack aggression moderated in favor of cooperation to hunt, and to ensure that every pup got their share of food. In a wolf pack the elderly, young, and weaker members are not eaten for breakfast, but march in the front of the pack so they don’t get left behind. Wolves display incredible socialization skills. These dogs seemed anything but socialized. How could they socialize if they stayed on chains? You can’t be a pack stuck on chains and wolves, contrary to public perception, are not crazed killers. My thoughts turned to whether or not these dogs even knew how to play? (in fact they largely don’t understand the concept of play) And if the “pack” reaction was the result of an action (lifting a dog up on his hind legs) that still left the question of why. John was giving me 1 + 1 = 2 but not the theory, not the reason 1+1=2 instead of =3. It reminded me of teachers that teach from a book instead of teaching from their reflections. The more I think on it the more I am convinced that John never allowed himself the opportunity to reflect on dog behavior as a whole. Maybe for John, a dog musher, dog behavior began and ended with molding dogs into sled pulling machines? I told myself that by season’s end I would learn the true answer. For Spike’s sake if anything.